Multinational Monitor

MAR/APR 2005
VOL 26 No. 3


Chamber of Horrors: The US Chamber of Commerce Leads the Campaign to Eviscerate Victims' Rights to Sue
by Emily Gottlieb

Winning the White House in the "Lawsuit Lottery:" The Bush-Rove Ticket to Power
by Andrew Wheat

Unfair Competition: Big Business Guts California's Landmark Consumer Protection Law
by Carmen Balber

Unequal Justice: The Hidden Gendered Impact of "Tort Reform"
by Darshana Patel

Junk Food's Health Crusade: How Ronald McDonald Became a Health Ambassador, and Other Stories
by Michele Simon

Pulping Cambodia: Asia Pulp & Paper and the Threat to Cambodia's Forests
by Luke Reynolds

Terror as Anti-Union Strategy: The Violent Suppression of Labor Rights in Colombia
by Anastasia Moloney


Smoking Guns and the Law: Litigation and the Humbling of Big Tobacco
an interview with Richard Daynard


Letters to the Editor

Behind the Lines

Bringing Justice to Big Business

The Front
The Wolfowitz Card - Australia's Oil Grab

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Terror As Anti-Union Strategy: The Violent Suppression of Labor Rights in Colombia

by Anastasia Moloney

Bogota, Colombia — Gloria Ramirez knows only too well the dangers of being a high-profile union leader in Colombia. Throughout her impressive 30-year career in the trade union movement, she has survived an assassination attempt and been forced into exile. She continues to regularly receive death threats by phone, mail and the Internet. Once she was sent a foreboding wreath with her name across it. The latest death threat was a letter signed by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary umbrella group, warning that her bodyguards would no longer be able to protect her and her two sons.

An executive committee member of Colombia’s largest labor confederation, the Central Trade Union Federation of Colombia (CUT), and former president of Colombia’s most powerful teaching union, the Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE), Ramirez never leaves home without her bulletproof vest. She travels in an armored car surrounded by the watchful gaze of three bodyguards.

“In Colombia, threats are carried out,” she says. “I’ve survived so far but I’ve been forced to live my life in a fragile box.”

Many of her colleagues at the CUT have not been so fortunate. Last year, 94 trade unionists were murdered, 87 of them CUT members. In the first two months of this year, at least five trade unionists have already been murdered in Colombia.

While Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is quick to emphasize the decline in the number of trade unionists murdered and kidnapped during the last four years, the government is less eager to point out that other forms of violence against union members have increased since the start of Uribe’s term in August 2002. The National Trade Union School (ENS), a Medellin-based non-governmental organization and research center, has documented a 50 percent jump in the number of threats to individual trade unionists between 2003 and 2004, a 57 percent increase in arbitrary arrests and a 16 percent rise in union members forcibly displaced.

“Overall the number of illegal acts committed against trade unionists between the first and second year of the Uribe government increased by 62 registered cases,” says Juan Bernado Rosado, research coordinator at the ENS human rights department.

Government armed forces are increasingly responsible for violations against trade unionists, including arbitrary detentions, house raids and harassment by state agents. Most notably, last August the Colombian army killed three prominent union leaders in the northeast department of Arauca.

Ramirez believes that this recent trend reflects a deliberate government policy to stifle trade union activity and protest. “This government continuously undermines the legitimacy and rights of trade unions and attempts to tarnish our reputation,” she says.

Government activities have created an anti-union culture in which violence against labor leaders and activists is tolerated and normalized, according to Ramirez. “The network of civilian informants created by Mr. Uribe, where people can receive financial rewards for information about illegal activities and insurgent groups, has helped government forces to selectively target individual union members and promote an anti-union culture,” she says.

Agrees Janet Kuczkiewicz, director of trade union rights at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), “The prevailing climate of violence against trade union leaders, activists and members has given rise to an atmosphere of anxiety amongst workers, who are often intimidated or threatened during collective bargaining or strikes.”

Government agencies routinely thwart union activity, according to unionists. In 2004, the Ministry of Social Protection, responsible for labor issues, allowed few new unions to be formed and declared the majority of strikes to be illegal, often citing “public order” reasons. Unions say recent changes in labor law have made it harder for workers to exercise collective bargaining and freedom of association rights.

Such restrictions might explain why only some 5 percent of Colombia’s economically active population belongs to trade unions.

The introduction of new anti-terrorism laws has made it easier to criminalize trade union activity. The ENS highlights the government’s growing tendency to use these laws to limit and stigmatize trade union protest. During the Uribe administration, an increasing number of union leaders have been arrested on charges of “terrorism” and “rebellion.” Last year, two high-profile senior union leaders from the oil and agricultural unions accused of “rebellion” were arrested during industrial action.

The ICFTU says that arrest and illegal dismissal of striking workers is common, as the experience of hundreds of protesting workers from the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, demonstrated last year.

Government attempts to privatize and re-structure the oil, electricity and health sectors are seen by unions as yet another a way of reducing their power and the number of unionized workers. According to the ENS, when Telecom, a national state-owned telecommunications company, was re-structured, it was “for the sole intention of destroying its union of 6,000 workers.”

The paramilitary threat

While over half of those who commit crimes against trade unionists cannot be identified, it is the paramilitaries who most selectively target union members.

Last year, the paramilitary AUC was responsible for 32 percent of all violations carried out against trade unionists, according to the ENS.

The 13,500-strong force, made up in significant part of the sons of conservative wealthy landowners, are natural enemies of trade unions. They associate the majority of union members with subversive Marxist ideologies and claim they collude with left-wing guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Trade unionists living in paramilitary-controlled areas live a perilous existence.

A menacing e-mail message sent in 2003 by the AUC to one union leader from the Oil Workers’ Union (USO) reveals the attitudes of the paramilitaries towards trade unionists and the growing trend of threatening the families of unionized workers as well. “We declare all USO union leaders and the children of the USO members to be military targets,” the message said. “We have already started our actions against the workers’ children.”

Paramilitary and other violence against unionized women has significantly increased in the last two years. More unionized women, particularly from the teaching sectors, are being threatened, murdered and forcibly displaced. According to the ENS, attacks against unionized women increased by 20 percent last year.

Ramirez says the paramilitaries target teachers not just because they are suspected guerrilla sympathizers, but because teachers enjoy a high status and influence in society, especially in rural communities. Many teachers also become community leaders, defending the interests of the poor and indigenous groups, making them more prominent targets. Last year, the teachers union lost 38 members, 13 of them women.

The ENS sees increasing violence against women as part of a “strategy of terror.” According to Bernado from the ENS, attacks against unionized women are intended to raise the national fear level. “Men normally bear the brunt of violence in Colombia,” he says. “Murdering women makes more of an impact on communities, creating more publicity and terror.”

While teaching unions remain the worst hit sector, the CUT is also concerned by increased persecution of agricultural workers, including especially arbitrary and mass arrests, in the fertile farmlands in the departments of Sucre, Tolima and Arauca.

A culture of impunity

To be a union leader in Colombia is to put one’s life at risk. On the recommendation of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), the government has initiated a protection program that includes at-risk trade union members. The program provides a checklist of security measures, bodyguards, mobile phones and bulletproof vests. Although the IACHR in its 2003 Annual Report praised the government’s decision to continue with the program, it commented that “it is necessary to keep improving this mechanism, and in some cases there have been problems or delays in the implementation of the protective measures.”

Ramirez, who is also part of the program, says too many protected union leaders are still being assassinated despite receiving some protection.

Perpetrators of crimes against trade unionists in Colombia act with almost complete impunity. Although some 3,500 trade unionists have been murdered over the last 15 years, only 600 cases have been investigated, resulting in just six convictions. One component of the problem, say human rights groups, is the collaboration of paramilitaries and government armed forces.

The government justifies turning a blind eye to violence against union leaders in part by saying that trade unionists are simply caught up in the overall violence that is part of the internal armed conflict in Colombia. Government officials deny that union leaders are systematically singled out by government security forces or other perpetrators.

“We strongly oppose this view,” says ICFTU, noting that “over 60 percent of death threats received by trade unionists last year occurred in the context of collective bargaining or strikes.” Nineteen percent of trade unionists murdered in 2004 were during periods of industrial dispute, according to the ENS.

What remains undisputed is Colombia’s reputation as the world’s most hostile country for trade union activity. According to the ICFTU, more than 80 percent of trade unionist murders throughout the world last year took place in Colombia.

Colombian trade unions face a difficult year. They will have to confront urgent issues such as proposed government pension reforms and Uribe’s controversial bid for re-election next year, despite a constitutional prohibition on his seeking another term. Trade unions are also concerned about high defense spending — which they say is at the expense of much needed social investment, particularly in the areas of health, education and land reform. The pending final negotiations regarding the Andean Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which union leaders fear will undermine workers’ interests in Colombia, will further strain the trade unions’ relations with government.

Gloria Ramirez’s experience illustrates the plight of trade union members across all work sectors and areas in Colombia. But it is also an example of the tenacity and perseverance of union leaders in the face of persecution. “I’m in the eye of the hurricane,” she says. “But if we all hide away or leave, what will happen to the country and our fight for social justice?”

Anastasia Moloney is a freelance journalist living in Colombia.


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